Welcome to the reader-friendly version of Áine Kelly-Costello’s masters thesis:
“You Nibble Away at the Edges”:
A Qualitative Analysis of Climate Journalism Practice in Aotearoa New Zealand
What’s the research all about?
Journalists have a key part to play in bringing the systemic, overwhelming and urgent phenomenon of climate change to life, in our shared interest of living on a healthy, thriving planet for generations to come.
But media processes, based on ideas like reporting rounds, timely, bite-sized and local news, weren’t designed to cover this whole-of-society, long-term, complex and transnational issue.
This thesis centres on describing, in context, what climate journalism practice involves in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ).
See chapter 2 of the full text for NZ social, media and climate context.
Where does it fit in to existing research?
The study is part of a growing body of NZ and international research and commentary covering how climate journalism is produced, how it’s framed, how much climate change gets reported on, and how people interact with it.
A few especially relevant pieces are:
- This commentary on NZ climate journalism from science and climate journalist Jamie Morton (2020),
- This NZ study on climate news on TV (Burk et al. 2017),
- This Swedish study (Berglez, 2011) and this transnational overview (Brüggemann, 2017) on the shifting roles of climate journalists,
- This international literature review on climate journalism production (Schäfer & Painter, 2021), and
- This review of climate communication in NZ (Salmon et al. 2017).
There’s a far more extensive backgrounder to previous research in chapter 3 of the full text.
Who is interviewed?
The study draws from interviews with 10 digital, print and radio journalists, including editors, who consistently cover climate change.
More about the journalists interviewed and the outlets they work for
|Profile||Roles (current/previous)||Organisation (description, mediums)||Audience|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Entered journalism 1980s
|Producer of Our Changing World: produces weekly, half-hour science, environment and medical research programme.|
Previous roles include producing and directing wildlife TV documentaries; science and environment programmes for RNZ; and preparing science communications for Govt organisations.
|RNZ National. State-funded public broadcaster covering radio and digital.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Post Grad Dip. Journalism.
Entered journalism 2010s
|Staff writer analysing current affairs. Produces a daily news round-up email.|
Previously journalist for commercial radio station Newstalk ZB.
|The Spinoff. Online magazine covering current affairs analysis.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Post Grad Dip. Journalism, Master’s in Science Writing, Environmental law studies.
Entered journalism 2000s
|Climate editor for Stuff directing coverage nationally and reporting daily news and analysis.|
Previously reported for the NZ Herald (mainly business and environment) and Newsroom (environment).
|Stuff. Large news website and 49 print newspapers and magazines. Became independently owned by CEO May 2020.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Environmental science studies.
Entered journalism 1980s
|Editor, managing Carbon News and filing climate news stories.|
Previous roles include various news reporting, magazine and radio roles and communications for environmental organisations.
|Carbon News. A small on-line daily news service aimed primarily at business||Industry|
Entered journalism 1990s
|Science, environment and health editor for The Conversation editing and commissioning articles written by academics for a general audience. Also freelances both in NZ and internationally.|
Previous roles include founding producer/host of RNZ science and environment programmes Our Changing World and Eureka, science feature writer for local daily newspaper The Press.
|The Conversation. A news site publishing commentary and analysis by academic experts under creative commons.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
No formal training
Entered journalism 2010s
|National correspondent for Stuff filing mostly long-form features of national interest on the environment and climate change.|
Previous roles include community news reporter at Stuff and Christchurch environment reporter for the local newspaper, The Press.
|Stuff. Large news website and 49 print newspapers and magazines. Independently owned by CEO from May 2020.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Post Grad Dip. Journalism.
Entered journalism 2000s
|Science writer developing science, environment, climate and tech stories for the NZ Herald newspaper and website.|
Previously reported on many other rounds at the NZ Herald.
|NZ Herald. News website and NZ’s largest daily newspaper owned by publicly traded NZME.||General|
Degrees in politics and international relations.
Entered journalism 2010s
|Reporter for RNZ Pacific, with a primary focus on climate reporting.|
No previous roles.
|RNZ Pacific. An audio and digital division of RNZ.||Pacific|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Marine biology studies
Entered journalism 1980s
|Freelance journalist, writing feature-length science and environment stories primarily for NZ Geo and National Geographic.|
Previously co-founder and editor of NZ Geo till 2005.
|Long-form print and digital magazines.||General|
Pākehā (NZ European)
Post Grad Dip. Journalism.
Entered journalism 2010s
|Editor of NZ Geo including commissioning and editing stories and associated photography|
Previously NZ Geo deputy editor, and editor of photography and consumer research magazines.
|Bimonthly print and online magazine featuring in-depth photographed stories on NZ society and environment. Independently-owned.||General|
What was covered in the interviews?
The interviews were wide-ranging.
- The journalists’ background
- Factors involved in finding and deciding upon stories
- Stories they were proud of
- Stories with high audience engagement
- Their roles and responsibilities
- Constraints on their reporting
- Media industry impacts
- Journalist networks
- Covering climate Now weeks impacts and participation
- Strengths and gaps in NZ’s climate coverage and workforce
- Impacts of major news events including the Christchurch terror attack and the covid-19 pandemic
- Impacts of campaigning movements on reporting
- Changes in climate reporting in NZ looking back a decade and forward a decade
The analysis of the interviews is based off the idea that producing climate journalism is a practice.
As Witschge and Harbers (2018) define it, a practice is made up of ideas, goals, routines, experiences, preferences, and many layers of context.
The practice develops and changes based on how it’s collectively carried out and talked about.
See chapter 4 for a full discussion of the theoretical framework, including discussions of journalistic role orientations, field theory and journalistic spaces.
Based on this idea of journalism practice, the analysis is organised into three sections:
- The journalists’ responsibilities and the nuances and challenges of putting them into practice;
- News media contexts—whether editorial, organisational, network, collaborations or media industry;
- Climate change and Covid-19 pandemic contexts.
In the full text (chapter 6 and 7), the analysis dives into lots of comparisons with other studies and more theoretical ways of understanding the relationships between the factors or forces which structure climate journalism.
Provide Accurate Information
Finding and presenting accurate information is a core function of reporting generally and the journalists make clear that climate journalism is no exception.
The journalists discuss accuracy in terms of using their judgement to avoid false balance and be evidence-based and also to consider how stories are framed.
Using news platforms to spread climate denial is considered unethical because, given the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change, doing so would be inaccurate.
Verifiable evidence is central but can take many forms beyond Western science as Veronika Meduna (The Conversation and freelance) points out.
“The maramataka, the Māori calendar of looking at star constellations and when they appear in the sky and being able to link that with certain environmental events… That calendar has become a climate change tool… that’s equally evidence for me, in terms of having something you know there’s lots of observation behind it, lots of confirmation, lots of checking and re-checking behind it.”
A key part of reporting accurately on Pacific Island communities involves avoiding stereotypes, as Kennedy Warne (freelance) speaks to.
“[When reporting in Kiribati:] I went out of my way to describe what I saw, and people there said that they didn’t want to be considered helpless victims, and the helpless victim narrative was the one that was peddled. People for years have been saying that the islanders are queueing to leave, and it’s not true, they’re not. They haven’t left, they have no intention of leaving.”
Make Connections, Add Context
The journalists hold the notion of telling more connected climate stories in high regard, drawing out perspectives which are side-lined in public conversation.
Connecting the dots can highlight and uncover new ways of viewing an issue which extend beyond singular subject areas such as science or politics.
Jamie Tahana (RNZ Pacific) observes the challenge of disconnects between local perspectives from the Pacific Islands on the one hand, and the scientific and political arenas where climate negotiations and discussions are playing out on the other.
Alex Braae (The Spinoff) describes a story involving the concerns of a group of locals from a small town, whose income is heavily reliant on farming, about the planting of productive farmland with carbon-absorbing pines at the cost of local jobs.
“It involved being in a place where not a lot of journalists were particularly looking at through a climate change lens. It took into account the fact that we might know exactly what the Scientific Solutions to climate change are, but we don’t necessarily know how to turn scientific changes into social and political policy that won’t leave people behind. … I think it moved into that conversation, which is a much more difficult conversation then we are putting too much carbon into the atmosphere, we need to put less carbon into the atmosphere or we’re going to die, as it were.”
Similarly, Jamie Morton (NZ Herald) describes a wide-ranging feature he wrote just before the Paris COP, which “laid out basically the whole gambit from the emissions trading scheme, problems with carbon credits, right through to the direct environmental impacts people were going to be able to expect in the next decades”.
The story Eloise Gibson (Stuff, previously Newsroom) picks as her proudest brings together focus on local government, planning and resource consent expertise and climate risk projections to shed light on some apartment block planning decisions failing to account for flooding risk.
The journalists discuss framing climate change holistically, connecting, say, melting glaciers or fresh water policy or paleoclimate research to ecosystem and societal implications.
For Gibson, political accountability is also important, which can come from making links between government pledges and actual results, or investigating the funding sources of climate research.
Provide Regular and Fresh Coverage
The journalists aim to provide regular climate coverage with fresh angles, and for some formats, to accompany them with compelling and non-stereotyping visuals. All of that takes proactive effort.
Continuous climate coverage is seen as an important public service, as Adelia Hallett (Carbon News) shows.
“Subscribers have access to all our databases, something like 18,000 stories there. I’ve written a quarter or a third or something like that. It’s not prise-winning… it’s cumulative. It’s useful information for our readers.”
However, for the longer-form journalists especially, it can be hard to avoid predictable story lines on a topic whose systemic causes and consequences are relatively unchanging.
As Rebekah White (NZ Geo) points out, even though it is increasingly easy to find stories with inherent climate relevance, “the difficult thing is weaving it into the story so that you don’t end up with a paragraph beginning ‘and here’s how it’s threatened by climate change’”.
She finds that explaining how climate change is affecting species across ecosystems is one of the best ways into the topic currently, as an unexpected entry point that readers can learn from.
“You don’t think of the hilltops as being a victim of climate change. The main impact of climate change that people think exists are sea level rise, glaciers melting and more storms, whereas in fact it’s pervasive across ecosystems.”
The journalists consider relevant and non-stereotyping climate visuals useful hooks, at their best, but notoriously hard to come by, which research finds is an even more acute issue for television.
White notes that this process can be resource-intensive, providing an example of a story which yielded great visuals but involved stationing a photographer in Antarctica for six weeks.
While disaster coverage is a guaranteed source of visuals and a useful hook, Kennedy Warne ( freelance) caution upon over-reliance on it which may sacrifice longer-term, more contextualised narratives.
Aim for Fair, Diversified Representation
The vastness of climate change as a subject area brings with it a huge range of perspectives in terms of how to act on it and the journalists speak to the need for fair and diversified representation.
In practice, this means making a conscious effort to seek out and fairly convey a wide range of perspectives, especially marginalised ones, to avoid homogenising movements or groups, and take other ethical considerations like children’s privacy into account.
In determining how to report on governmental or political perspectives on climate change, Eloise Gibson (Stuff) combines political impartiality with scientific context.
“There is a huge scope for political variability for what you do about the fact that climate change is happening. so we are quite careful to allow the whole scope of those views to come out in our coverage. So if a politician says “well sure I acknowledge that climate change is happening, but I don’t think we should do anything if it’s going to come at the cost of this particular industry” or whatever, we wouldn’t kind of not put that in. … there’s still a role for science there in that you can test what the politicians are saying against what the IPCC models show, or if their policies were to come into practice, what effect that would have on the country and on the climate.”
For Alex Braae (The Spinoff), part of fairness also involves accounting for whether the story participants feel that their own viewpoint has been captured fairly.
Journalists also discuss efforts to avoid homogenising the perspectives within climate campaigning movements. Eloise Gibson (Stuff) explains:
“I think the other thing I’ve become really aware of since starting this job at Stuff is there are a lot of activist groups and groups full of different voices who feel like only one type of person is being heard. They feel like the establishment is being heard and even, I guess the old school environment groups that have been around for a long time. Not always, but often their spokespeople are men of a certain age, which doesn’t mean that they don’t have great ideas but… I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of people calling out journalists for really not listening enough to young people, people from different cultures.”
Another facet to fairness is the privacy and ethical issues that may arise with increased coverage of children and younger teens generally, made visible by the school Strike movement.
Braae, Using the example of a story where he interviewed a 15-year-old who had been suspended from school for protesting on climate, queries the murky relationship between the fact that the protester on the one hand wanted the media attention, and on the other may risk greater exposure to cyber bullying and online harassment as a result.
Foster Emotional Awareness
Tone and emotion-related aspects play an important role in reporting on climate change both from an accuracy or integrity point of view in representing climate science, as well as in empathetically engaging and empowering the audience on such a complex and overwhelming topic.
Dramatic or unjustifiably doom-laden stories are seen as misleading and Charlie Mitchell (Stuff) talks about a kind of emotional monitoring.
“I guess the harder thing for climate change is getting across how serious and urgent it is in a way that keeps your journalistic integrity, so you’re not fear mongering necessarily but you’re also conveying the seriousness of the situation, without seeming partisan or hysterical or anything like that.”
The journalists are also aware of the psychological barriers to engaging with climate news, keeping in mind the sense of lethargy or reader fatigue audiences are likely to approach the topic with.
Whether the physical environmental manifestations of climate change trigger a sense of grief or not is subjective.
Rebekah White (NZ Geo) notes that while various climate-related losses such as the melting of glaciers have a particular emotional toll for some people, they will not for everyone, and so the need for contextualising why they are problematic comes into play.
Many of the journalists hope that climate solutions coverage is on the rise. They want to cover forward-thinking people and groups to posit more hopeful visions of both actions people can take and what a more climate-friendly future could look like.
Make Stories Interesting
Attempting to write climate stories appealing enough to click on or listen to without sensationalism is a well-warn challenge within climate reporting.
Alex Braae (The Spinoff) describes balancing out the omnipresent public interest nature of climate stories with reader interest in terms of aiming for maximum impact per story.
“So I guess one of the things you are trying to do with balancing those two factors up is figuring out both how you get The information across in a way that people are going to be interested in continuing to read it, and also making sure that the actual information you’re taking the time to get across, is it actually crucial information about climate change to convey to people. So you’re focusing on getting the most impact that you can can for the science itself, with how you balance those two judgements out.”
Journalists discuss the generally unfriendly format of scientific research and the challenges inherent in making it appeal to a general audience while not distorting it.
Alison Ballance (RNZ) explains that IPCC reports are difficult to cover in an interesting or meaningful way, partly because every word is a fought-over compromise, partly because public understanding of scientific uncertainty is lacking, and partly because many news reporters work to a bite-sized format which does not allow for deeper exploration.
Make stories relevant
Stories involving a combination of tangible, direct and current impacts to people living in New Zealand (or the Pacific for RNZ Pacific) on climate-exacerbated events are considered particularly relatable, as well as feeling more rewarding to work on.
Charlie Mitchell (Stuff) describes a story he was proudest of involving a small South Island town where a lot of low-income households are heavily impacted by coastal erosion.
“I got to speak to a lot of ordinary regular people who are dealing with this quite serious problem. It sticks out for me because climate change can be quite abstract and hard to communicate in some ways, but in that story, it was very real, it was very tangible. I remember one of the people I’d spoken to, a wave had come through her backyard just the week before and hit her house.”
Understanding whether such tangible, direct-impact stories are best at propelling audience engagement is murkier.
What is clear is that, however unpredictable the art of grabbing public attention may be, it’s not limited to a single sort of story.
Of stories journalists worked on that got good engagement, journalists cite local and personal direct-impact accounts, science–usually illustrated or interactive–about climate impacts, glaciers and paleoclimate, policy, entrepreneurial sustainable community solutions, grouping New Zealanders by climate perspectives, and academics answering audience climate questions directly.
Engaging visuals and attention to layout also help.
Audience relevance is complicated by the divide between who mainstream media audiences tend to be and who is most affected by climate change.
Rebekah White (NZ Geo) raises this concern When asked about a vision of climate reporting in a decade’s time.
“I suspect that it’s going to be much the same as today. A bunch of journalists trying to make something that predominantly affects under-privileged people relevant to the middle-class people who are the main consumers of their media. It’s still going to be a hard sell because it’s not going to affect all aspects of society equally.”
While it is likely that the NZ public, somewhat isolated as NZ geographically is from most of the world, may indeed interpret relevance with this strong domestic focus, the fact that journalists feel obliged to filter climate coverage through this lens may limit the visibility of the transnational nature of climate change.
Engage with Audience Needs and Interaction
The journalists engage in various ways with being responsive to the coverage the public would like to see, from surveys, to writing for a niche, to answering audience questions.
In 2019, Stuff ran an open survey of climate coverage audience preferences and to its surprise received 15,000 responses.
Adelia Hallett at Carbon News says that publication exists specifically to meet the needs of industry audiences.
Another approach to using audience interaction to shape coverage involves soliciting questions on any aspect of climate change or taking climate action, and producing stories which answer selected queries directly.
This was the aim of a Q&A series called Climate Explained which was a partnership between Stuff and The Conversation. Veronika Meduna (The Conversation), who instigated it, found it surprisingly successful.
She says it was “a nice bridge between the reader interest and more scientific aspects”, with stories receiving “incredible readership”, including throughout educational institutions.
Journalism Industry and Job Security
The media industry’s instability is the backdrop that most reporters, including climate reporters, live under.
The journalists make clear that the future of climate reporting, the future form of the media industry and the public value placed upon journalism are intimately connected.
Even though the journalists build up expertise as they move between roles, Eloise Gibson (Stuff) notes the lack of job security over the medium term might pose a risk to climate journalism insofar as the networks and expertise built up in the area over time are concerned.
The resiliency of organisational funding models and personal factors have a bearing on who can afford to remain in journalism.
The journalists also talk to the challenges of the prevalence of misinformation dissemination via social media and public under-valuing of their craft.
Gibson says the fundamental question about the future of climate reporting is how journalism is funded.
“So much is going to ride on how we’re getting paid. Is it an advertising model, is it a sponsorship model, is it reader subscriptions or donations or is it government ownership? I don’t think that would change what a good science journalist would write about climate change but it will probably change the platforms, how many science journalists are left, are there more of us, are there fewer, there is a lot up in the air.”
Specialist Reporter Numbers
Resourcing varies between organisations, but nationally, the number of specialist reporters employed by mainstream news organisations whose remit includes climate coverage has improved markedly in the past few years.
Jamie Morton (NZ Herald) who has been in journalism since the mid 2000s is encouraged by this.
“I can’t think of any other time in all my years of journalism that there has been so many reporters covering climate change and doing such a good and comprehensive job of it. And that’s quite remarkable given the state of the media at the moment and the fact that we are under more pressure than we ever have been, and we’re worried about our jobs on a daily basis.”
The biggest climate reporting shift has come indisputably from Stuff, in a move singled out and widely praised by the journalists interviewed
In 2020, the large (national and regional, digital and print) organisation created the country’s first mainstream, ring-fenced climate desk.
That’s a very different level of resourcing to what’s available at some organisations, particularly in radio and TV,. organisations who didn’t employ any journalists who consistently cover climate change aren’t represented in this study.
Public broadcaster RNZ has remained unwilling to employ a specialist science, environment and/or climate correspondent, a decision over which two journalists explained that two of their previous RNZ colleagues had left the organisation.
The journalists’ capacity to cover climate varies significantly, impacted by factors ranging from the scope of their round and whether the journalist is ring-fenced or not, to the number of reporters covering a given round at an organisation, and their geographical location in case of breaking news.
News agendas mean that resourcing can at any time become needed for a previously unforeseen news event at short notice, impacting the proportion of climate news produced.
At the NZ Herald, Jamie Morton has to make space for climate within an already packed science, environment and technology round, and now a pandemic.
“To be fair, climate coverage at the Herald has really suffered the last few months, just because it’s usually me who usually does it… [With the pandemic,] I’ve got to be covering contact tracing, vaccines, mutations, there’s a million science angles to this and there aren’t many other people who can pick that up at my shop.”
Editorial Legitimacy and Direction
Editorial acceptance of the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change is now thoroughly established.
There is a trend towards greater editorial legitimacy across many, but not all, organisations in terms of proportion and prominence of coverage.
At their best, editors can help journalists to explain complex subjects in accessible ways without distortion.
But as Jamie Morton (NZ Herald) and Veronika Meduna (The Conversation and freelance) have found, attempts from generalist editors to bolster coverage appeal can also have distorting impacts. They can, for instance, nudge story selection or focus to be skewed towards over-emphasis on the impacts of what climate action from individuals can achieve, within the bigger picture of policy and systemic change.
At Stuff, editorial backing of climate coverage has translated in practice to more resourcing along with increasingly regular coverage.
Charlie Mitchell (Stuff), whose Environment and climate role pre-dates the development of the climate desk, notes that considerable time and energy goes into large projects and interactives, spurred by editorial demand for that kind of coverage.
Covering Climate Now is an initiative spotlighting focused weeks of global coverage are designed to help newsrooms commit to boosting the quantity and quality of climate coverage.
In a few cases, the journalists say they helped increase editorial attention on climate change. As Mitchell points out, the idea is that the need for them should disappear.
“Particularly the first [CCN week], Stuff did quite a lot for that. I had a piece that was specifically designated for that. … After that, we had Climate reporting as a daily sort of thing. I had a piece the last one we did [in April 2020], but we report very regularly on the topic now so we don’t really need a designated week. … We treat every week like that now.”
Science Communication and specialised knowledge
Several journalists feel that science communication is a burgeoning and strong field in NZ, thanks to increasing numbers of skilled specialists, strong climate science communication expertise and informal networks between journalists helping to share knowledge.
Specialised positions and skillsets are important because of the expertise and experienced built up within the area over time.
As Eloise Gibson (Stuff) explains:
“I think that [more specialists] would help because it takes quite a lot of rigour to cover climate really well because you’re going to get conflicting stories about what emissions targets mean and whether they’re enough… Whether electric vehicles are actually harming the climate. You’re going to get thrown a lot of stuff, and you need quite good evidence and analysis skills to cut through all of that.”
Rebekah White (NZ Geo) has proactively arranged meet-ups for the science journalists in a bid to create community, noting that science communication was not part of her journalism education and that many science journalists are freelancers, so sharing knowledge is difficult.
Coverage Scope and Siloes
Climate coverage has traditionally been dominated by science journalism perspectives, but climate change disturbs the media logic of dividing journalism into general news and specialised rounds.
If climate journalism is slowly gaining legitimacy nationally with increased numbers of specialists and more editorial importance, embedding climate-related considerations across news organisations seems to be the next frontier for covering this whole-of-society phenomenon.
Alex Braae (The Spinoff) gives an example.
“If there is a protest that is disrupting the normal flow of someone’s life somewhere, for example some of the Extinction rebellion ones or blockades and stuff that would put up on roads, those stories are covered all the time by all sorts of news outlets. But they are often covered more in the sense of covering a protest rather than covering climate change as it were. So the news report is about Lambton Quay being closed because 50 people have linked their arms and sat down in the middle of an intersection, and often in the straight news reporting of it, there isn’t then that next step of: 50 people are sitting on Lambton Quay, also, by the way, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to change x y z.”
Some organisations are moving in this direction already. For instance, The Spinoff aims to cover climate impacts from scientific but also social, political and economic angles.
At Stuff, the climate editor appointment has paved the way for developing a regional network of reporters who feed in climate story ideas.
The journalists suggest that mainstreaming climate considerations may involve more science communication training, newsroom policy recommending this, and more editors and managers prioritising climate connections across other rounds.
Coverage of Frontline Communities and Countries
The journalists discuss challenges regarding the resourcing of representative coverage of marginalised groups including of climate frontline communities and the disproportionate climate impacts these communities contend with.
Representing Māori and Pacific perspectives respectfully involves building trust.
The roots of Māori distrust in mainstream media run deep due to long histories of often racist and otherwise demeaning coverage, such as documented in Stuff’s 2020 Tā Mātou Pono investigation).
One journalist describes how their publication approached a coastal community which is embarking on the challenging journey around managing the need for relocation of their marae and urupā due to sea level rise risks. A couple of requests to document that process over time, one made by a journalist approaching members of his own iwi were both declined.
Also discussed is the lack of diversity within NZ’s mainstream news ecosystem.
For Pacific Islands coverage, the journalists link its low levels and overly repetitive story lines to factors including resourcing—both reporter numbers and funding for travel to the islands—along with editorial and individual journalist priorities, and perceived audience interest.
Only RNZ and TVNZ have Pacific correspondents, and in-depth Pacific reporting otherwise tends to be limited to one-off, NGO-funded trips.
Jamie Tahana at RNZ Pacific, the only reporter in the sample regularly covering the region, explains that an awareness of cultural context is a key element of reporting in these communities.
The unreliability of phone, Skype, or lack of English language access within local communities is compounded by less awareness around, for instance, what interview requests are for and the role of journalism.
Frontline community perspectives can also help to make the here and now of climate change more concrete.
While in Tuvalu, Tahana approached an 80-year-old on a beach who lent a seasonal, indigenous perspective to observing climate change in action, which was not at all contingent on knowledge of, or access to, climate science. Then he was able to tie that into stories on climate diplomacy discussions and oceans reporting.
Sustaining Climate Coverage and Driving Change
The degree to which news organisations back and integrate climate coverage vary.
But some journalists express the sense that most climate coverage is being driven by a small core of highly committed individuals, rather than sustained support across all levels of mainstream news organisations.
Additionally, most of the journalists would like to see more climate specialists employed across the country, especially, as two noted, in the press gallery.
The journalists’ perspectives on the degree of viability for this shift vary, though it is clear that the stability of the organisations’ funding models and managerial priorities are both key determinants.
Adelia Hallett who runs Carbon News, the country’s only specialised climate outlet, captures the crux of the problem.
“The only reason Carbon News exists is because my husband and I make it exist. We just keep doing it. We don’t have anyone over us saying ‘no those stories aren’t selling, go do something else’. It certainly hasn’t been profitable.”
“If I had other mainstream news bosses above us it would never have happened. From a business point of view, the sensible thing probably would have been to shut up shop. But not from a moral point of view. That’s why journalists aren’t good businesspeople.”
Social Context: Climate and Covid
Climate Visibility and Complexity
The journalists discuss a number of ways in which climate change is becoming, or will become, more traditionally newsworthy, but also more complex to cover well.
In general, actual emissions increases (of any kind) are only a fraction of the picture. It’s more about the public and political responses to the ballooning ramifications of those increases, via a rise in youth-led public demand for climate action, conflict in the agricultural space, the messaging from scientists, and national and foreign policy decisions.
Veronika Meduna (The Conversation) says the socially and politically-charged and complex area of agricultural emissions is set to be challenging to cover.
“Twenty years ago we had the denial focussing on CO2 and asking all those fundamental questions again and again and again. There is a similar thing happening now on methane. It’s not the same pure denial saying it’s not happening, but whether we have to account for it in the way we do, and whether we have to take it as seriously as I think we should. Agricultural emissions are very tightly linked with people in jobs living off the land producing the food we all need. So it’s easy to become defensive and argue that we can’t stop doing agriculture, and doing it differently is too big a deal. So I’m bracing myself a little bit for another rough patch, if New Zealand were to introduce something to regulate agricultural emissions.”
The journalists are conscious of the importance of their role and the need for it to adapt to the hugely varied range of social, political, scientific, economic and other happenings in the climate space.
The early days of the Covid pandemic spotlighted the precarious conditions holding up journalism.
While all of these journalists managed to hold onto their jobs and continue producing journalism, the funding models of their organisation, how their organisation reacted to the pandemic, the scope of their round, how much their plans were travel-reliant, and the (trans)national context they were working in (NZ vs the Pacific) determined how their work was impacted.
Theoretically, a journalist like Eloise Gibson (Stuff), who is ring-fenced to cover climate change, would find their work disrupted less. But in the beginning, Covid had a firm hold on the news cycle and audience interest.
While Covid provides for story angles bringing these two massive crises together, there is uncertainty as to whether climate coverage could or would be made to benefit from positive consequences of the public health emergency such as public interest in scientific expert advice or witnessing the impact of immediate collective action.
Longer-term, the impact of Covid is slated to lie in becoming, like the climate crisis, an event whose tentacles and impacts intersect with everything else.
As Alex Braae (The Spinoff) puts it:
The big editorial decisions that come into where there’s a connection there [between climate and Covid] is the fact that if you were writing a story right now about what the future looked like, and didn’t include some sort of consideration of Covid-19, it would kind of be a worthless story. We know that there’s going to be some effect on pretty much everything and we don’t know how that’s eventually going to shake out.
Globally and in NZ, we’re in the midst of increasing prominence and politicisation of climate change, a rise in youth-led mobilisations for climate action, and a prolonged public health crisis.
Just like Covid-19, climate change is complex and systemic,.
This study ads to the NZ and international journalism literature by increasing our understanding of what the job of journalists charged with communicating this story of our lifetimes and beyond looks like.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t cover the perspectives of any television or video reporters, nor any journalists from Māori medium news.
But it takes a detailed look at the perspectives of ten journalists covering climate change regularly, who reflect on their climate-related work and observe the contexts they and other climate journalists work within.
The discussion starts to clarify the extent of what any one journalist can do day-to-day, and where the management, organisational, economic, media and social systems they work within come into play.
Where-to from here?
Climate change spans across practically all areas of society. So future research would be well-placed to understand the perspectives of journalists and editors who aren’t currently making climate connections in their stories, commissioning or editing processes at the moment, and what resources could help change that.
Further research could also:
- Examine the framing of climate change in NZ news media (most of the framing studies were carried out about a decade ago)
- Drill down into questions around covering the agricultural side of climate change
- Compare climate journalism practice in NZ with other countries
Thank you, and onwards
I want to thank my supervisor Dr Monika Djerf-Pierre for her guidance and insight throughout my research. I’m grateful also for feedback and support from Dr Penelope Carroll and Catherine Delahunty, as well as from my parents Dr Mark Costello and Katherine Kelly.
Most of all, a huge thank you to all the journalists interviewed in this research.
Analysing your experiences and perspectives is key to understanding the drivers, trends, strengths and limitations shaping climate journalism practice in NZ, while providing a basis for international comparison and learning.
I hope this foundation can serve journalists, media professionals, researchers, policy-makers, campaigners and everyone across Aotearoa NZ and beyond working to create a planet where ecosystems and people can thrive for generations to come.